Breastfeeding past the first year

Whether they’re asking if there’s any harm in letting their little ones nurse a little longer, or they’re asking when they have official permission to stop, many breastfeeding moms wonder about the nutritional and social effects of breastfeeding past the first year and into the toddler years. In either case, the answer isn’t any more definite than any other about feeding Baby – there are a few general guidelines, but the answer that’s right for your little one and your family will be based on their individual needs and desires, and your own.

Official recommendations 

The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding exclusively through the first 6 months, and continuing to breastfeed along with feeding complementary solids through the second year. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a less extended recommendation, but they also don’t offer a cut-off point after which babies or toddlers should stop breastfeeding. Instead, the AAP recommends exclusively breastfeeding through the first 6 months, and then from there, to feed breast milk along with complementary solids through the first year, and then onward for as long as both mom and baby want to. While less explicitly a recommendation of toddler breastfeeding than the World Health Organization’s advice, the AAP’s open-ended advice leaves plenty of room for parents and toddlers to figure out the time to wean away from the breast that’s best for them. 

Nutritional benefits of extended breastfeeding

One reason that neither the WHO nor the AAP gives a cut-off date after which babies and young children should stop breastfeeding is because there is no evidence of a point when breastfeeding stops being a nutritious food source for children. In fact, as babies grow older, and start nursing less and less often on their own, breast milk starts to change in composition to meet the new pattern.

This means that breast milk that’s been pumped by moms who have been breastfeeding for longer than a year is more concentrated, containing more nutrients and more energy from fat than breast milk pumped earlier in the nursing relationship.

Immunological benefits of extended breastfeeding 

Like the nutritional benefits of extended breastfeeding, the Mayo Clinic reports that evidence suggests that there’s no upper limit for the point when breast milk can benefit a growing immune system. In fact, international breastfeeding authority and advocacy group La Leche League suggests that, though their immune systems are stronger than the immune systems of infants, older babies and young children’s immune systems are still not quite functioning at an adult level, and so may rely on the immune-boosting quality of breast milk.

Emotional checks and balances of extended breastfeeding

The emotional effects of extended breastfeeding are more subjective, and are something each family will need to evaluate for themselves when considering the issue. Many argue that extended breastfeeding gets in the way of a child’s development of independence, while others argue that giving a baby or toddler the chance to decide when they are ready to wean away from breastfeeding builds confidence and independence. More than that, extended breastfeeding may actually make weaning easier, since longer breastfeeding gives a greater chance for a baby to initiate weaning on their own, which is generally easier than trying to convince them to wean.
On the other hand many parents still feel uncomfortable with extended breastfeeding, which can color the breastfeeding experience. In the end, it’s how each parent and baby feel about breastfeeding that should determine how long a breastfeeding relationship lasts, but the breastfeeding relationship doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s important for both parent and child to feel comfortable with breastfeeding as the breastfeeding relationship extends.

Benefits of extended breastfeeding for you

Research suggests that breastfeeding can also have a positive effect on a mother’s health, including reducing the life-long risks of contracting certain illnesses, like breast cancer, ovarian cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. That’s true of breastfeeding generally, but the Mayo Clinic says that research suggests that the longer a woman breastfeeds, the greater the health benefits might be.

  • Kathleen M. Buckley. “Long-Term Breastfeeding: Nourishment or Nurturance.” Journal of Human Lactation. 17(4): 304-312. Web. November 2001.
  • Jen Davis. “Breastfeeding Beyond a Year: exploring benefits, cultural influences, and more.” New Beginnings. 24(5): 194-205. Web. September-October 2007.
  • K.G. Dewey, D.A. Finley, B. Lonnerdal. “Breast milk volume and composition in late lactation (7-20 months).” Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition. 3(5): 713-20. Web. November 1984.
  • Sally Kneidel. “Nursing Beyond One Year.” New Beginnings. 6(4): 99-103. Web. July-August 1990.
  • Dror Mandel, Ronet Lubetzky, Shaul Dollberg, Shimon Barak, Francis B. Mimouni. “Fat and Energy Content of Expressed Human Breast Milk in Prolonged Lactation.” Pediatrics. 116(3). Web. September 2005.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Extended breastfeeding: What you need to know.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, April 17 2015. Web.
  • M.T. Perrin, A.D. Fogleman, D.S. Newburg, J.C. Allen. “A longitudinal study of human milk consumption in the second year postpartum: implications for human milk banking.” Maternal and Child Nutrition. Web. January 18 2016.
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